The case of a boy who is fighting for his life after being slammed to the floor 27 times during judo practice by his coach and classmate has shocked Taiwan – but it has also highlighted what critics say is a culture of turning a blind eye to abuse against children.
Wei Wei* is a typical seven-year-old boy living in Taiwan.
He’s a fan of Super Mario, likes sports and once won third place in a track race.
Earlier in April, he convinced his family he wanted to give judo lessons a try. Just two weeks after, those lessons are the reason he’s lying in a coma, and is likely to remain in a vegetative state even if he survives.
A disturbing video has emerged showing him being thrown on a mat by an older classmate during judo practice.
As the lesson continues, he is heard screaming “my leg”, “my head” and “I don’t want it!” but his coach keeps ordering him to stand up and tells the older boy to go on throwing him.
When Wei Wei is too weak to get up, the coach, much bigger than him, picks him up and throws him several times as well. At one point, the child vomits, but the “training” doesn’t stop.
Altogether, his family says, he was thrown more than 27 times.
Wei Wei eventually passed out and was taken to a hospital where doctors found he had suffered severe brain haemorrhaging. He is now in a coma and on life support.
“I still remember that morning when I took him to school,” says his mother.
“He turned around and said, ‘Mama goodbye’. By night, he had become like this.”
‘Authority and abuse’
The coach, who is in his late 60s and identified only by his surname Ho, has been detained for investigation on suspicion of negligence causing serious injury. He has denied any wrongdoing, according to the Taichung District Court.
The district prosecutor initially released him following questioning, accepting his explanation that what had happened to Wei Wei was part of “normal training”.
But after the child’s family held a news conference, the court said there was evidence to suspect the coach might have committed a serious crime and there was a risk of collusion with witnesses, so it granted a prosecution request to place him in incommunicado detention – where an individual is denied contact with anyone except his lawyer.
Experts say that Wei Wei’s case has brought up disturbing questions that highlight deep-seated problems in Taiwan’s attitude towards children and learning.
The most glaring one: why did no-one stop the coach?
There were adults at the judo studio who witnessed what happened, including Wei Wei’s maternal uncle, who reportedly filmed the video to show the little boy’s mother that judo may not be suitable for him.
“In the East, it’s common to expect children to withstand difficulties and obey authority,” said Joanna Feng, executive director of Humanistic Education Foundation, an NGO which has lobbied for years to end corporal punishment and child abuse.
“In our culture, teachers are treated as really great people.”
This attitude of obedience and reverence for teachers runs so deep that it may explain why none of the adults – including the child’s uncle – who were present questioned the coach’s authority, despite his screams.
Wei Wei’s mother later told reporters that his uncle felt “terrible for what happened”.
“They may have been thinking since the coach requires it, I shouldn’t oppose the coach’s requirement,” said Ms Feng. “We’ve seen many examples of this reaction and mindset; even in serious cases.”
In one incident for example, the parents of a student who was filmed being kicked in the stomach by her opera teacher several times, not only defended the coach, but apologised for causing him trouble.
In another case, no complaint was filed against a gymnastics coach who was filmed slapping one of his students and pulling another by her pony tail, causing her to fall backwards while on a competition trip in Thailand.
Corporal punishment in school
Wang Yan-shu, director of Campus Harmony Promotion Association, a parents group working to stop corporal punishment, says this silence has a lot to do with Taiwan’s culture.
“Our culture leads many people to not fully respect children’s rights. It’s better now, but Taiwan really lags behind other developed countries in this aspect of human rights,” Ms Wang said.
In 2019, the Ministry of Education logged 625 students as being subjected to corporal punishment in school.
While hitting students has been banned in Taiwan since 2007, and corporal punishment has steadily declined, the practice still exists, and attitudes tolerating it prevail.
“If adults do that to each other, it would definitely be a problem. How can we do that to kids?” she says. “This shows we still think children’s rights are not as important as adults’ rights.”
Hank Hsu, whose teenage son was allegedly beaten and verbally abused by his teacher almost daily for a year, said Wei Wei’s case had brought back painful memories from 2017, the year he and his wife learned of the abuse their son had been suffering.
“He would pull my son out of class and hit him with a pipe or stick or kick him with his knee,” Mr Hsu said.
“He also frequently made my son kneel outside the teachers’ office. The principal and other teachers saw this, but didn’t do anything.”
The Ministry of Education told the BBC it advises schools and teachers to not use corporal punishment and that teachers who cause physical or mental harm can be suspended from between one to four years, dismissed, or banned from being employed as a teacher for life.
In reality, however, most teachers, are merely given a demerit or short suspension – few are dismissed. The teacher of Mr Hsu’s son was given a demerit and a small fine.
Culture of abuse begins at home
The judicial system also tends to side with teachers, Mr Hsu says. Prosecutors in his son’s case did not charge the teacher with causing injury, arguing the family had to prove his injuries were connected to the abuse.
Mr Hsu adds that some parents in the school then put the blame on him, saying things like: “You didn’t teach your child well. Why didn’t he do his homework?”
In fact, it is not uncommon across Asia for parents to discipline their children in harsh ways. In Taiwan, some parents beat their children for getting low test scores.
Last year, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare received reports of 12,610 cases of child abuse, most of which happened at home.
Many cases, however, are not reported because of the belief that children should be disciplined strictly so they will learn.
“Taiwanese people still don’t put enough importance on this issue and even stay silent,” Ms Wang said.
The Ministry of Education says it has now asked local governments and sports associations to increase their supervision of sports groups and to raise awareness about sports safety.
But critics say Wei Wei’s case has exposed long-existing loopholes in the system – the coach was allowed by a local judo association to teach even though he was unlicensed, the studio run by the association was not adequately supervised by the government, and the public is not taught to recognise that all forms of abuse are unacceptable and to intervene when they see abusive behaviour towards children.
“In the face of this incident, the perpetrator must take responsibility, the bystanders must take responsibility, and the system must take responsibility,” the Humanistic Education Foundation said in a statement. “The government has a responsibility to let the people know: everyone is responsible for protecting children!”
They added that it shouldn’t take a child to be seriously injured to bring about change.
“We need to educate adults to really respect and protect children,” Ms Feng said. “This is the government’s responsibility. The government and society need to re-evaluate themselves.”
‘We are waiting for him to wake up’
Wei Wei’s family still can’t understand how the coach could have treated their child this way.
They say he initially told Wei Wei’s uncle that he was faking unconsciousness and later told his father that Wei Wei intentionally fell hard on the mat.
They are now determined to “seek justice”.
His parents spend each day by his hospital bed. His father showed me a photo of Wei Wei lying next to a stuffed doll of Mario, his favourite character, which he bought for him.
“When I visit him at hospital, I talk to him,” his father Mr Huang said. “I want Wei Wei to hear that we are waiting for him to wake up.”
The hospital says the chances of that happening are slim.
The family, however, is praying for a miracle.